Discover how four Walden agents of change transformed their thoughts into action—and how you can do the same.

By Lori Putnam
January 2011

Why is it that some ideas flourish into tangible reality while others never make it past a fleeting thought? What is it that separates the serial entrepreneurs and inventors who bring their ideas to life from those of us who find ourselves still standing on the sidelines?

Often it can be an emotional catalyst that propels us into action. Cheryl Dorsey, president of the global nonprofit Echoing Green and a frequent Walden speaker, describes this emotional calling “the moment of obligation.” While training to be a pediatrician at Harvard Medical School, Dorsey experienced such a moment when she was faced with a crisis in infant mortality in inner-city Boston.

“We all see problems every day, but every once in a while, there’s that one problem you absolutely can’t look away from,” recalls Dorsey. “For me, it was this notion that these babies were not getting a chance in life.” With the assistance of Echoing Green, which provides financial support and other services to social entrepreneurs, she launched a mobile health unit called the Family Van.

Have you experienced your moment of obligation? Whether your goal is to change your neighborhood or the world, for it to have a real impact, you’ll need to share and build on your idea to turn it into a force for social change. The following stories from members of the Walden community illustrate the personal experiences that motivated these individuals to transform their ideas into actions, as well as practical tips for you to consider when you’re ready to make your move.

Start a Literacy Program

Name: Andrise Bass, Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration Student

The Idea: As a child growing up in Haiti, Andrise Bass taught herself to read and write. As an adult, she made it her personal mission to help children avoid exploitation and abuse by launching a literacy program in a country where just over half the population can read. She partnered with the local government and grassroots organizations to implement the Lire Program in 2008, relying on Walden faculty members and colleagues to assist her. In its first year, the program helped more than 150 children begin to read.

“Children need knowledge like they need food and clothes,” says Bass. It is through education, she believes, that many children can escape poverty including some who, like Bass, were child laborers. Ultimately she would like Lire to become a U.N.-sanctioned program whereby literacy kits could be provided in refugee camps and other regions struck by natural disasters. “Where there are no schools or books is where Lire needs to be,” she adds.

The Impact: After the devastating Haiti earthquake in January 2010, fellow Walden classmates flew to the country to help Bass restart the program. “Before the earthquake we would go to churches and schools,” says Bass. “After the quake, we still teach but it is very difficult. Most of the people who helped in the program don’t have a place to live, either.”

Her next goal is to have enough equipment to build a permanent facility for the program. “We must know how to read and write,” she adds. “What good is bringing technology and resources to this country if we can’t read?”

How She Did It: To implement a reading program in a country ranked 177 out of 200 in literacy, Bass had to make use of every resource at her disposal. The first thing she did was connect with an education student at Walden to help her design a curriculum for reading. Eventually she had a core group of Walden colleagues assisting in writing grants and even flying to Haiti to volunteer as teachers. She credits her Walden faculty mentor and the staff of the Walden Library and Writing Center for also assisting her in developing the program.

“You must have hope and you must believe it can happen,” says Bass. She adds that Walden gave her the drive to learn more and helped her to understand that social change is not about saving the entire world but at least making a difference in some part of it. “I can’t save Haiti, but I can do my part,” says Bass. “I’m going to give these kids the opportunity that I didn’t have.”

Open a School

Name: Erin Manzanares ’06, M.S. in Education

The Idea: “Learning should be fun,” says Erin Manzanares, who came to teaching after a career in New York theater. “I spent two years in public schools, and after two years, I knew I didn’t want to be in that system. What I saw happening was that everything was becoming segmented. For instance, there would be reading for an hour, then math for an hour. It was almost as if students had these blinders on. There were so many challenges that I felt were preventing us from succeeding, both students and staff.” So Manzanares decided to open a different kind of school, one where children are involved in project based learning and where topics are approached creatively and comprehensively.

The Impact: In fall 2010, Manzanares welcomed her first class of six students at La Puerta School for the Arts, Sciences and Agriculture, a nonprofit, private school with a multi-age classroom serving a largely rural community in New Mexico. Children and teachers focus on learning every aspect about a topic to create deeper and more meaningful connections. “Our theme for this year is roots,” says Manzanares.

From studying the transformation of seed to plant to following the birth of chicks through adulthood, students at La Puerta have a creative framework from which to base their learning. What’s more, Manzanares encourages hands-on learning in what is a heavily agricultural community. Tending to a chicken coop, for example, challenged students to incorporate math, science, and the visual arts in ways that go beyond textbook learning. The simple act of suggesting improvements to the coop to better accommodate the chickens has given students the opportunity to realize that they, too, can help make a difference, says Manzanares.

How She Did It: A self-described planner, Manzanares emphasizes the importance of writing down goals. “You can have goals, but once you write them down, it makes them more powerful,” she says. Her first set of goals focused on building her credentials as an educational leader. “I started by earning my teaching certification, then gaining additional experience in the classroom, and finally completing my master’s degree.” Next, she started investigating how others founded schools. A key first step, she discovered, was registering with the state as a nonprofit organization. This led her to create a board of directors, which may sound intimidating but was something she approached by simply asking the assistance of family and friends. She went to local community members and asked them to join as well, which helped to expand her network of supporters. “It’s important to get your idea out of your mind and start talking about it,” adds Manzanares. “It was really scary for me to say to people that I was starting a school. I knew once I said it, I had to do it. Then my idea had a life of its own.”

Change Perceptions

Name: Reis Woollen ’10, Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

The Idea: “To practice nursing in India,” says Reis Woollen, a native of Santa Cruz, Calif. “It was a dream come true, but it was harder than I thought to find a place where my skills and talents were welcomed and useful. I discovered that I couldn’t do direct care nursing due to language barriers and visa issues, yet I still wanted to use my profession to contribute to the greater good.” She realized that the field she knew well, gerontological nursing, could help an Indian culture struggling with an increasingly aging population and a lack of resources to care for them. Woollen turned to Mumbai-based nonprofit organization Silver Innings to help her connect with and educate Indian nurses and other caregivers. “We began working together toward the goal of improving the care of older adults through education.”

The Impact: “In many modern Indian families, both husbands and wives are now working outside the home, which means no one is home to care for aging family members,” says Woollen. “There aren’t enough long-term care facilities in the country to answer the need.” Through her outreach, she hopes to impact perceptions of the elderly held by both the individual and the collective public. “Above all, the message we try to convey is that senior citizens have inherent rights and value and that aging can be a positive experience.” The outreach process can be slow at times, meeting people in small groups in classrooms or in the basement of a church, but she credits the Indian community as being open to improving eldercare. “It’s exciting to work here with professionals who want to see state-of-the-art geriatric care in their communities and are willing to learn and try new things to make that happen.”

How She Did It: Despite the initial challenges of working in a foreign country, Woollen found a way to apply her knowledge and skills as a nurse. “Choose a cause you believe in, find a way to get involved such as joining an NGO [nongovernmental organization] and then get to work,” she counsels. “Doing something feels a whole lot better than doing nothing. Don’t believe that the world’s problems are too great and there’s nothing you can do. Actually, there is always something you can do.” In Woollen’s case, finding a partner was essential. “Investigate the organization well and make sure your personal values and goals are aligned,” she advises. “Finding a good match will ensure that you stick with it and have real satisfaction with the work you are doing.”

Build a Not-for-Profit

Name: Eric McLoyd ’09, Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.)

The Idea: “When I was in college, I was part of a mentoring program that paired seniors with underclassmen,” recalls Eric McLoyd. “Through that experience, I discovered that many minority students who started college weren’t graduating. I decided I wanted to address that problem even before students get to college. I thought a program for high school students that focused on character development could address this issue.”

McLoyd created the not-for-profit organization Planet W.U.N. in 2004 and implemented a successful character development program at a high school located on Chicago’s south side. Three years later, he merged his organization with The Giving Tree, a consulting company that trains early childhood educators.

The Impact: Today McLoyd’s organization works with local Chicago schools to provide customized professional development for teachers that addresses specific challenges in their classrooms. In addition to training, McLoyd and his partner and wife, Bridgett Scarborough, are spearheading the development of the Rogers Park Youth Zone to increase after-school programming and reduce youth-led violence.

How He Did It: McLoyd wasn’t a teacher by trade or training, but he sought out advice and guidance from others and, as a result, was able to launch an organization to foster student achievement. He looked to his immediate network of family and friends, many of them educators, to help him turn his idea into a viable program. “Pull together a pool of advisors to assist you,” he advises. “It doesn’t have to be people in the industry, but people you can trust to bounce ideas off of.”

Next he requested meetings with individuals working in nonprofits in the Chicago area to help him define his goals and create his mission statement. He also suggests seeking out local organizations and business schools that can provide consulting services for little or no cost for individuals starting businesses. McLoyd expanded his own network of experts when he enrolled in Walden’s School of Management to earn his M.B.A. “I had spoken to people about strategies, but I didn’t have the knowledge to create a business plan,” recalls McLoyd. “I didn’t know the language of business.”

Finally, he advises defining your idea thoroughly. “Do research and find out what organizations or people may already be addressing your issues, and reach out to them for feedback,” he says. “Many times they may be doing similar work, but still there is a niche that is overlooked.”

When you’ve put your idea into action, let us know at MyWaldenImpact@waldenu.edu.

Connect With Volunteers Online

One way to share your idea is to join the Walden Service Network. This online community of Walden students, alumni, and faculty and staff members connects volunteers with volunteer opportunities. Visit often to learn about more volunteer opportunities in your local community or to find support for your idea for social change.

Register for free online at www.WaldenU.edu/servicenetwork.

The Courage to Fail

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? This was the question posed by Echoing Green CEO and Walden commencement speaker Cheryl Dorsey to recent graduates last July. Although failure has the ability to stop us dead in our tracks, said Dorsey, without the possibility of failure, there would never be an opportunity for a breakthrough innovation.

Other words of advice from Dorsey:

  • “You are enough. You are an abundance if you have the courage to embrace your unique gifts and talents and are not afraid to unleash them on the world.”
  • “Failure is not a dirty word or a socially unacceptable outcome that has to be talked about in hushed tones. Reaching for something that seems improbable but means everything to you is the very definition of opportunity, and that is the lifeblood of all social change movements.”
  • “Failure is ultimately nothing more than a state of mind—your state of mind. It’s so easy to fall prey to doubts and fears. Build a community around you that will love you, stand for you, and be your fiercest champion.”

Watch Dorsey’s commencement address and see her discuss social entrepreneurship here